Anti-team legislation can make us slaves to individual rights

Society is becoming more selfish. At least that’s what the most commonly held view on the issue suggests, and it’s only set to get worse. Whether or not you believe the headlines, my 20 plus years’ experience as an HR consultant has led me to believe the hype. Increasingly many (I stress, not all) employees no longer see themselves as part of a team, but are increasingly ‘lone wolves’ single mindedly pursuing their needs and wants above those of the team. Each decision they make is with ‘I’ first and foremost, with ‘we’ maybe just a passing thought. It could be argued this was inevitable. How do you create a culture of team engagement, and group morale when for decades UK workplace legislation has focused almost exclusively on Individual Rights, rather than the ‘rights’ of the group? I’d argue it is simply not possible to develop successful teams where each individual has numerous legal rights but no corresponding responsibilities. My wish for 2019 would be for the government to set out a ‘responsibility’ alongside every ‘right’ it confers.

For example, you have the right to 12 months maternity leave but when asserting your right to this you need to be able to demonstrate you have done whatever is in your power to do to ensure that you have minimised the impact on both the business and, most importantly, your colleagues. Being dishonest about due dates creates chaos, continually changing your mind about your return date hugely impacts those covering your work. At the 11th hour demanding a working pattern on your return can leave colleagues feeling you have cherry picked the best, to their disadvantage.

Another example is that you have the right to raise a grievance, but in asserting that right you should have a responsibility to manage your complaint (the tone of language used and the examples given) in a way that demonstrates your consideration for the wellbeing of those drawn into your complaint – management, colleagues, witnesses etc. It should not be acceptable to bully colleagues into backing you up or lashing out with unwarranted personal attacks on the person you are accusing when asserting your right to not be discriminated against.

Equally, you have the right to safe place of work, but you have an equal responsibility to operate in a way that ensures it is kept safe for others too. Don’t complain of a trip hazard left by a colleague if you then phone a team mate knowing they are driving, and with the full intention of disrupting them from the road with your call.

And you have a right too, to ask for flexible working, but if you reduce your working to just one or two shifts or days a week, don’t then complain that you are being left out of the loop. You actively took yourself out of 60 or 80% of the ‘loop’ so now you need to step up your communication and engagement in the days you do work, not sit back and accuse your manager of ignoring you.

Successful workplace relationships only work when both parties do their bit to make it work. Too often employees take the view the relationship success is solely the responsibility of the manager or employer. It is simply not possible to have a world where everyone has rights but no responsibilities. The assertion of individual rights without consideration for the business or colleagues causes immense upset in organisations.

The government though will never publish any ‘Responsibilities’. It will never pass a law requiring employees to act like ‘adults’ rather than spoilt children. My recommendation therefore is to beef up your policies around professional behaviour in the workplace, bring those responsibilities in yourself and set them out very clearly in writing. Seek to integrate high personal levels of responsibility within your culture, and start to make it clear that your culture supports the ‘We’ and not just the ‘I’.

As part of this I would recommend that every single D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) workshop you run in your businesses dedicates as much time to discussing Responsibilities as to talking about Rights. I would also recommend training your managers so that in performance reviews or coaching with staff the focus is as much on adult professional behaviour in the workplace as it is on completion of tasks. There is nothing that impacts staff retention as much as people feeling put upon or taken advantage of – especially by colleagues who are regularly allowed to get away with ‘childish’ or selfish behaviour.

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Helen Jamieson is CEO at Jaluch HR & Training

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